CLEVELAND -- His primary position may not be open at the big league level, but that hasn’t deterred Cleveland's top prospect, infielder Nolan Jones, from accomplishing his ultimate goal. That’s why when the club approached him about possibly changing positions, he viewed it as a door that could lead to opportunity.
In addition to being ranked first on the organization's prospect list by MLB Pipeline, Nolan is No. 38 on the overall Top 100 list. The 22-year-old was added to Cleveland's 40-man roster this offseason to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, and there’s been plenty of anticipation about his debut.
But with José Ramírez still manning third base, Jones was asked to try playing the outfield or first base to better his chances of making it to the Majors in 2021. Without hesitation, he said yes.
“I know that my end goal is to play in the big leagues and help the Indians win,” Jones said. “So I'm doing everything I can to try and get comfortable out [in the outfield]. It's tough. It's a lot different. You're a lot farther away from the baseball than you are at third. You've got to read spins and all that. So we're working every day to hopefully have me ready to play outfield in the big leagues someday.”
Jones was selected by Cleveland in the second round of the 2016 Draft as a high school shortstop. He made the transition to third base and drew 96 walks in 2019, the year he was chosen to represent Cleveland at the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game. But for the first time, he is trying to make the transition from the dirt to the grass.
“I've actually never played outfield in my life prior to [the 2020 instructional league],” he said. “I want to play in the big leagues. And this could be an avenue that gets me there, and whether I go back to third or not, hopefully I can go up there and hit and produce and stay up there.”
Jones was selected to participate in the MLB/MLBPA Rookie Program this week, a four-day event (being held virtually this year) that helps prepare up-and-coming prospects to handle being a big leaguer. He had a front-row seat for Triston McKenzie’s debut last year, and now he’s hoping his turn is just around the corner.
“I mean, when [McKenzie] got that call, I was just as excited as anybody for him,” Jones said. “He works hard. He's a great guy. He goes out of his way to help other people and do things for other people. Obviously, like he showed in the big leagues, he's an excellent pitcher, so I was excited for him to have that opportunity to be able to go out there and prove what he can do.”
While McKenzie joined Cleveland's 26-man roster toward the end of the 2020 season, Jones was just down the road at the club’s alternate training site as one of 60 players in the organization chosen to continue practicing over the summer. Although the competition for a callup was gone without a Minor League season, Jones was able to use that time to improve on things he otherwise may not have been able to.
“I know what I do well at the plate, and I know what I don't do well,” he said. “So I was able to kind of focus -- for the first time, really -- on the things that I really didn't do well at the plate. And we were able to work on it every single day and hammer out my movements, do small things every day, the drills that make you uncomfortable and the pitches that you don't like to hit, and we were able to focus on those every single day and try and master those pitches so we can hit everything well.”
In just over a month, Jones will arrive at big league Spring Training, recalling all the things he learned from his brief experience at the Major League camp last year to help him settle in. And although his debut seems inevitable, he’s not allowing himself to set any expectations for the 2021 season.
“I'm not usually one that does that,” he said. “But I have had a lot of time to think about it, and now that it's getting closer and we're only a couple months away from Spring Training, it's kind of going to be the same thing as every year: Go out there and have fun and learn. I've just got to continue to get better if I want to play in the big leagues for a long time.”